Sat phones, special runners and more… all in place for polls in Anantnag-Rajouri

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Anantnag/Rajouri (J&K): With the threat of cross-border shelling in some border areas and satellite phones and special runners in place to deal with contingencies, all is in readiness for elections in the controversially redrawn Anantnag-Rajouri constituency from where PDP chief Mehbooba Mufti is contesting.

Contesting against Mehbooba Mufti, working to revive her party’s fortunes following its alliance with the BJP in 2015, in the keenly watched election on Saturday are National Conference’s Mian Altaf and 18 others.

Elections in the last of the five seats in Jammu and Kashmir take place against the backdrop of four terror incidents, including one that claimed the life of an Indian Air Force soldier and a former BJP sarpanch.

Nothing is being left to chance, said officials. Multi-layer security arrangements have been put in place in the constituency spread across 18 assembly segments in Anantnag, Kulgam and Shopian in south Kashmir and Rajouri and Poonch districts south of Pir Panjal to ensure free, fair and peaceful polling.

The Election Commission has set up 2,338 polling stations in the parliamentary constituency, which has more than 18.36 lakh voters. Four election staff, including the presiding officer, will be stationed in every polling booth. In all, more than 9,000 polling staffers, including reserves, are being deployed and have left for their stations.

With 19 border polling stations along the Line of Control (LoC) in Rajouri and Poonch, a contingency plan has been worked out to deal with cross-border shelling though chances are negligible given the ongoing ceasefire between India and Pakistan that came into effect in February 2021, officials said.

Some polling stations fall in communication-shadow areas and alternative arrangements have been put in place in such areas with satellite phones, wireless sets and special runners being provided in case of a crisis.

The parliamentary seat was redrawn, sparking controversy due to the geographical divide imposed by the Pir Panjal ranges. Criticism was levied against the delimitation process with Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Democratic Progressive Azad Party among others voicing concern over the methodology employed and suggesting a lack of consideration for geographical coherence.

In 2019, the Anantnag constituency had a turnout of just 9.8 per cent. And so perhaps, in a marked contrast to the fervent campaigning witnessed in other constituencies, the area has seen relatively subdued rallies.

However, the Poonch and Rajouri regions, known for high voter turnouts, have seen hectic campaigning with all parties getting their top leaders to campaign.

Political heavyweights such as National Conference’s Farooq Abdullah and Omar Abdullah, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti and her daughter Iltija Mufti, Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party’s Altaf Bukhari and Azad have spent considerable time in engaging with voters.

Originally slated for May 7, the Election Commission postponed polling in Anantnag-Rajouri citing adverse weather conditions. The decision to defer voting by 18 days drew the ire of regional political factions which alleged favouritism towards the BJP-backed Apni Party candidate Zafar Manhas.

Azad, who was initially slated to contest under the DPAP banner, has fielded Mohammad Saleem Parray, prompting speculation of strategic candidate placements possibly influenced by the BJP to fracture opposition votes.

This Lok Sabha election, the first since Article 370 was abrogated in 2019 and the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided into the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, is crucial for Mehbooba Mufti.

She is grappling with internal party dissension with several former PDP members now contesting against the party. The most prominent among them perhaps is Manhas, who was earlier affiliated with the PDP.

Amid the political manoeuvring, National Conference’s Omar Abdullah hinted at BJP support for Mehbooba Mufti in certain local pockets, a claim she chose not to address publicly.

The unfolding developments in Anantnag-Rajouri portend a riveting electoral showdown with far-reaching implications for the region’s political landscape.

With record-high polling in Srinagar and Baramulla, political observers feel the south Kashmir constituency will also register a higher than expected voter turnout.

The aggregate turnout in the four Lok Sabha seats, including Udhampur and Jammu, which have already gone to polls was around 59 per cent.

Authorities had received more than 2,200 applications from the contesting candidates and political parties, seeking permission for various electioneering activities.

While 1,920 applications for rallies, roadshows and meetings were approved, 303 pleas were rejected on various grounds.

The 18.36 lakh voters are enrolled in the five districts of Kulgam, Anantnag, Poonch, Shopian and Rajouri of the parliamentary constituency include 9.33 lakh men, 9.02 women and 27 third-gender voters.

Around 18,000 differently-abled people and 540 people aged above 100 years are eligible to cast their ballots.

Polling will be held from 7 am to 6 pm. Before that, there will be a mock poll in the presence of polling agents. Voting will continue after 6 pm if voters are found standing in queues outside polling booths.

Seventeen polling booths (‘pink’ polling stations) will be managed by women, 15 by differently-abled people and eight by youngsters. Also, there will be 15 ‘green’ polling stations to spread the message about environment awareness.

All the polling stations in Anantnag-Rajouri will have CCTV cameras for live webcasting to the control rooms set up at the district and CEO office. The cameras will be positioned in such a way so that they do not violate the secrecy of vote.

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